Despite incredible success, bantamweight champ doesn’t get much love
Whether it’s his fighting style, his stature, or a loyalty to other fighters in the lower weight classes who came before him, the man who is set to headliner UFC on Versus 6 tomorrow night opposite Demetrious Johnson doesn’t get much love from the public or some of the media.
Heading into his main event match-up with rival Urijah Faber at UFC 132, Cruz — the champion — played second fiddle to the challenger, despite entering on an eight fight winning streak that started following the last time the two met in the cage.
“I was kind of prepared for it,” Cruz said of the favoritism shown to Faber by the fans and the audience, speaking with Heavy MMA earlier in the week. “I knew that Faber had all those supporters and stuff because he held the title for so long in the WEC before I ended up winning at ’35. He was able to build up a big support group in those years, and I understood that. I knew going into that fight that it was going to be that way.
“But it still puts that chip on your shoulder, no doubt, because I know I worked hard to get that title, and to beat the guys that I beat to get it, and it didn’t really feel like anybody cared. But it is what it is, you know? I used it as fuel, and I used it as something to power me; that’s how I dealt with it. You only have a couple options: you can either sit and pout about your situation or you can be happy with the cards you’ve been dealt and figure out a way to make it work.”
Cruz prefers the latter, using each fight as another opportunity to make a case for further recognition, for both himself and the bantamweight division.
While some people were critical of the UFC’s decision to have Cruz defend the title on a free television broadcast, the 26-year-old champion is not one of them. He sees this as the next logical step in showcasing the division, and questions those who question the UFC’s decision.
“To me, it’s a way to build momentum. Why not put a title fight on free TV and have people get to see who I am, and see what the 135 pound division is about with a fight like me and Demetrious who are going out there to put everything on the line at a ridiculous pace? The bottom line is — no matter what anyone says — I’ve had one fight in the UFC, and the 135 pound division has only headlined one card in the history of this organization.
“Unless you’re a diehard MMA fan, a lot of people haven’t heard of our division, yet alone any of the fighters in our division. So it’s just kind of the way it has to be. The UFC knows exactly what they’re doing. They’ve built this sport into the fastest growing sport in the world, and built the company into a platform to be idolized by every other MMA organization there is, so how can anybody question the way that they’re doing things?”
While the comparison may seem quick to some, a victory for Cruz on Saturday night will give him a clean sweep against the top 5 contenders in the 135 pound ranks, including a pair of wins over #2 man Joseph Benavidez. For all the talk about the level of competition St-Pierre has dispatched and how both he and Silva have cleaned out their respective divisions, Cruz will have matched those feats with a win over Johnson, and done it in just over two years.
“I feel like all I can do is continue to let my stats do the talking for me. I will have beaten the top five in the division after I beat Demetrious. That’s something I’d love to do — it’s a goal of mine — to clean out the division and prove that I’m the best 135 pounder without a question. That’s a huge goal, and it’s not easy to do, so it’s absolutely something I’d love to do, and that I definitely strive for and work for every single day.
This isn’t a humble-brag, though some will undoubtedly characterize it as such, which maybe says more about how under-valued Cruz is today than anything. In a sport where we’re all looking to crown the next big thing, name the next era, and talk about champions who have cleaned out their divisions, Cruz is a reigning world champion poised to defeat another top 5 contender, and yet he’s constantly dogged.
He’s the Rodney Dangerfield of MMA, for those old enough to remember Rodney Dangerfield. For those who aren’t, Google him.
At the end of the day, Cruz knows the only way to change his current position in the eyes of the critics and the fans is to keep putting up victories and building his legacy as the best bantamweight in the sport. More than anything, that’s what Saturday night is about.
“Demetrious is the next piece to that puzzle for me, and I’ve been training my butt off every single day for the last two months for this fight, so I’m excited to go out there and do what I’ve set out to do.
“I’m going to go out there, keep the pace that I always do, force him to make mistakes by trying to force things. Go in there, put hands on him, pick him apart, and look for the finish from beginning to end until I get it.”
Maybe then he’ll get a little more respect.